The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls by Julie Schumacher

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unbearable book club

I picked this one for a special reason – I once was in a creative writing class taught by the author probably fifteen years ago. She was a really wonderful teacher – positive and totally passionate about her subject. So when I saw her name on a book that passed through my hands I held onto it.

This novel is narrated by Adrienne Haus, a fifteen-year-old girl stuck in her small town of West New Hope, DE for the summer. A knee injury kept her from taking a summer-long canoe trip with her best friend Liz, and her single mom has roped her into a mother-daughter book club that will be reading books off her junior year AP English suggested reading list.

So, not an off the chain summer, if you follow me.

The worst part is her fellow book club members – popular gorgeous CeeCee, activities-driven Jill, and Wallis, the unknown girl who recently moved to town and has skipped several grades and is surrounded in mystery. They aren’t friends and have absolutely nothing in common. And then of course, the moms. Enough to make you grind your teeth in your sleep!

It’s a difficult summer for Adrienne for sure, compounded by the usual teenage growing pains, and in typical fifteen-year-old fashion, she makes a spectacular mess of things. But the author tells her story with wit and humor, and a lot of love for all the girls in the book club.

The best thing about this book is that Schumacher doesn’t dumb down her writing for a teenage audience. Adrienne is a clever girl and her observations are often pithy and humorous. She also uses the novel to explore reading good literature and the comparisons these girls make between the books and their lives.

I was so delighted to find this book, as I hadn’t thought of my teacher in years. Now I have found she has published quite a few books, both for teens and adults. I’ll be hunting them down soon!

Also, Julie, if you read this, thanks for being such a great teacher. I’m still writing, and it’s a lot better than the crappy short stories I was writing in 1999.

Favorite line: “I had a low and irregular forehead. Even Liz once told me I had the hairline of an australopithecene.”

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

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Rosie Project

I picked this up because a library patron raved about it to me. It was also on Elaine Newton’s list.In case you don’t know, (and how would you unless you lived in Southwest Florida?) Elaine Newton does these great book talks at Artis Naples. Every summer she picks a great list of reads and then in the fall and winter she packs the house to talk about a handful of them. She always picks really interesting books, so I always oblige and read as many as I can.

Being a librarian, I get the privilege of ordering new books for the collection. Anyone who reads review journals such as Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, or Kirkus knows there has been a fat spate of books in the past decade dedicated to the autism spectrum. With the exception of a few (I’m looking at you, Mark Haddon), most of them are nonfiction. The Rosie Project is not; it is a novel and a hoot to read.

The protagonist is Don Tillman, a genetics professor at a University in Sydney, Australia. He is precise, methodical, practical, organized, pedantic and succinct. But he has never been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. I like that of the author – he doesn’t put his protagonist in a box. He might have Asperger’s, in fact it is extremely likely he does, but the words are never uttered, and Don himself never even considers the possibility of himself.

Don has a carefully analyzed schedule of his entire life -when he sleeps, when he eats, what he eats, all constructed to maximize efficiency and output. But he is nearing 40 years old and realizes that he is lonely and would like a companion, so he creates the Wife Project. He compiles a lengthy questionnaire to give to prospective mates which will separate the ideal candidates from the unacceptable. Unfortunately, none seem to meet his extremely specific requirements.

Then Rosie appears at his office door, sent over by a colleague and one of his few friends. But Don is unsure if she is there as a Wife Project applicant or for some other unknown reason. He finds her extremely attractive, but she smokes, drinks, is habitually late, and is a vegetarian! She is entirely inappropriate as a mate for Don, yet he can’t seem to get her out of his mind.

If you’re a fan of the British ITV series Doc Martin, you’ll get a first hand narrative of what you might imagine goes on in his head. I found it hysterical, yet warm without being silly or ridiculous. The character development was outstanding, showing the slow transformation of a man too enmeshed in his own rules into someone who learns to take risks and open himself to the possibilities brought by new experiences.

I liked it so much, in fact, that I chose it for my Fall Book Discussion selection at my library.

The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene

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headmasters wife

Here was another title that had me immediately hooked. Thomas Christopher Greene’s novel about the headmaster of an exclusive Vermont boarding school gets interesting fast.

Arthur Winthrop has been encouraged by the school board to reconnect with his students by getting back in the classroom, and does he ever! Almost immediately he begins a sexual relationship with high school senior Betsy Pappas, which is the most plausible part of the story.

As the narrative progresses, you start getting hints that maybe Arthur Winthrop isn’t as sane as he initially seemed. And instead of using his unreliable narrator to trick us, Greene sets up a very interesting plot, so when we come to the second half of the book, which is told by his wife, I was excited to piece together the puzzle.

In today’s fiction marketplace, there are two camps: the literary and the commercial, and I am not sure where this novel falls on the spectrum. It is beautifully written – Greene has a gift for language, no doubt, and I am not saying one cannot write a book that is both literary and have a gripping plot. While I feel Greene nailed it in the literary camp and set things up to have a smashing plot, I feel the latter fizzled out and left me wanting. Authors, please don’t yank my chain with the promise of a good plot twist then fail to deliver.

Still, I don’t know what it is about a story set at a boarding school that is so appealing to me. Is it sneaking a peak into the life of privilege in which I have never been included? That is part of it, surely, but I think it is also the environment of learning and education it represents. I’m a total nerd, for sure, I could have stayed in college the rest of my life had the funds been available.

I’d be interested to hear what others thought of this book. Did you love it all the way through, or did you feel gypped somehow with the ending?

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

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ImageI wasn’t curious about this book at first. I had heard about the TV show, but didn’t realize it was based on a memoir until I heard Piper Kerman interviewed on the Diane Rehm Show. Listening to Kerman’s story struck a chord with me and I immediately requested this book when I got to the library. And when it came in I casually flipped it open, and to use a fishing metaphor, I swallowed that hook. Unfortunately I was at work, and as much as folks believe to the contrary, librarians do not sit around and read all day. But I could feel that book tugging at me all day.

Piper Kerman, in case you don’t know, went to a minimum security federal prison in Danbury, CT for thirteen months for a stupid mistake she made when she was in her early twenties: she carried a suitcase full of drug money across international borders. Ten years later the feds came looking for her. What I love about Kerman is her attitude – she knows she committed a crime, and was willing to face the consequences. She did her time, and she paid her debt, and she did it with a stoicism that I find admirable.

I devoured this book over the course of the weekend; I found it so compelling that I read in every spare second I could find. The thing that struck me most about her observations about life in prison is that there is more of a community spirit there than I could have ever imagined. Everyone is in the same boat, and the women are more focused on helping each other out than sticking a shiv in a bitch. It wasn’t Club Fed either, as so many of us think. There was no air conditioning, lousy food, and you had to buy all your soap, toothpaste, and shampoo. And if you don’t have a GED? Good luck trying to afford your soap because you’ll make 14 cents an hour for 40 hours of work. And their GED program had been shut down due to a mold infestation in the classrooms.

The thing I liked best about Kerman was the lesson she learned in prison. She, like me, is very much a loner, fiercely independent, and determined to fix her own mistakes without asking for help. But she learned that sometimes the only way to do that is to allow others to help you, to support you, and lift you up.

I did watch the first episode of the Netflix TV show, and I wasn’t as impressed. Hollywood as usual, has to go for the -overly-dramatic, and the character of Piper is timid, scared, and a pushover. The real Piper Kerman was scared, absolutely, but she did not let others take advantage of her. If it gets better let me know, but I just want to slap “Piper Chapman” and tell her to get a backbone.

Last week Sheila, the lady who did my pedicure said something interesting. We were talking about a mutual friend who was hurt by another woman’s cruel words. She threw her hands in the air and said, “We women need to build each other up! This tearing each other down is ridiculous and has to stop.” I wholeheartedly agree. And Piper Kerman showed me that we can do that, no matter where we spend our time.

Update: I got through the first few episodes and it got better. I was hooked and have now watched all episodes of both season currently available. Now that I can separate it from the book, I love it. ~AMK, 8/30/14